SportsPulse: Our very own Paul Myerberg gives his prognostications and what you need to know heading into the first weekend of college football action.
After a tough start to Chip Kelly’s debut, UCLA split its final six games of last season — with a very meaningful win against rival Southern California — to head into 2019 with momentum, if not as one of the trendy teams in the unpredictable Pac-12 South Division.
Of course, Kelly is due the benefit of the doubt: At Oregon, he built a powerhouse program that revolutionized offenses across all levels of football. Yet early returns have been disappointing. The latest stumble, a 24-14 loss at Cincinnati, indicates just how far the Bruins still have to go before cracking the top half of the conference.
Not that Cincinnati is a bad team; in fact, the Bearcats may just be the best team in the American and one of the top contenders for the Group of Five bid to a New Year’s Six bowl. Still, after losing at home to Luke Fickell and Cincinnati a year ago, this was supposed to the moment Kelly and the Bruins made a statement — a road win against a borderline Top 25 opponent would’ve declared that UCLA is at least a bowl team, if not more.
UCLA should still improve in the standings compared to last season, only if it’s hard to imagine another Kelly-coached team finishing at or near the bottom of the division. This could still be a team that sneaks out six or seven wins, based on in-season development.
But to do so, UCLA needs to get more from sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who completed just 8 of his 26 attempts for 156 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also had a costly fumble in the red zone with the game scoreless in the first quarter. That’s simply not good enough. The UCLA defense made plays — including a fumble return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter that was ruled down by the replay crew — but still gave up 415 yards of total offense. Overall, the number that’ll keep Kelly awake over the weekend: UCLA turned the ball over four times.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Thursday’s college football action:
In the first look at the defending national champions, No. 1 Clemson took a 28-0 halftime lead against Georgia Tech and breezed through the second half in a 52-14 win. All systems are go. There were two interceptions by Trevor Lawrence, however, which was surprising, but the sophomore was very explosive as a runner. (He also made a tackle on one of his interceptions to save a touchdown.) Thursday night was a chance to marvel at Clemson’s other offensive star: Travis Etienne ran for 205 yards on just 12 carries, highlighted by a 90-yard touchdown score, to kick off his Heisman Trophy campaign in style.
LIVING DREAM: Oregon’s Herbert savoring final season in hometown
The Bearcats validated much of the preseason hype by topping UCLA. Still, most of the offseason chatter surrounding the American focused on McKenzie Milton-less Central Florida or even Memphis, another major contender for the New Year’s Six. Cincinnati was viewed as the league’s second-best team, behind the Knights, if not in third behind the Knights and Tigers. The Bearcats will get their shot at upending the perceived power structure during the regular season. Beating the Bruins suggests that Cincinnati is very much in the thick of things among the Group of Five.
Every win counts if you’re the Huskies, who are considered by many to be the worst team in the Bowl Subdivision. They still may be. But a 24-21 win against Wagner is two things: one, a win, and two, a solid defensive showing after last year’s unit set new records for futility in several major categories. Ignore for a moment that Wagner is part of the Football Championship Subdivision.
WKU made an offseason coaching change, replacing Mike Sanford with former Tennessee assistant Tyson Helton, and its opener against Central Arkansas put together a familiar performance: Central Arkansas 35, Hilltoppers 28. Somehow, the Hilltoppers lost despite having a 300-yard passer and 150-yard rusher as the Bears outscored them 21-0 in the fourth quarter. A program that not long ago was among the more consistent among the Group of Five under Jeff Brohm is clearly headed for another rough season. Unlike last year, however, the Hilltoppers weren’t expected to do much in Conference USA.
There’s no question that the American is a better league than Conference USA. Still, consider this interesting matchup from across the two conferences: FIU, viewed as one of the top three or four teams in Conference USA, against Tulane, a team predicted to reach six or more wins but not seen as among the top half of the American. That Tulane chewed up FIU in a 42-14 win is a statement about the Panthers, who did not look the part of a nine-win team, and about the gap between the two leagues.